75-year-old Harris County man gets patent for invention

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 17, 2013 

Lifting up his visor to inspect his work in the Columbus Technical College shop, 75-year-old Doug Lee insisted his wife, Joyce, isn't concerned about his safety while he cuts steal with 5,500 degrees of heat from a welding torch.

"Everything I do is just for fun now," said Lee, a Harris County resident who retired in 1997 after installing and maintaining X-ray equipment for 35 years.

That's why he took Tim Vinson's welding course at Columbus Tech last year: The joy of learning, keeping his mind young and giving this handy man another skill to add to his repertoire.

But a funny thing happened amid the fun: The spark of an invention.

Lee was frustrated his welding wasn't as sharp as the other students, who are young enough to be his grandchildren.

"When I did mine, it was a mess," he said. "It just was real bad. It just wasn't nice and smooth. I needed to do something. But you take a good welder, like any of these guys out here, man, they can do that thing and it's just perfect."

So he tinkered in his shop at home and came up with a contraption that stabilizes a welder's arm. The stabilizer is made out of a 24-inch steel drawer slide, mounted on a rotating mechanism from a boat seat and a 6-by-8-inch wooden block, and secured by magnets from an X-ray machine.

"It gives you a good, straight cut," he said.

Good enough to obtain a 12-month provisional patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

"I like his idea because it's portable," said Ron McBride, manager of the Columbus Tech welding program. "It sticks as much as you need, but when you need to move it, you just grab it."

Lee, however, hasn't found a manufacturer for the welding stabilizer, so he doesn't expect to spend the hundreds to thousands of dollars it would take to renew the patent before it expires.

"If I made a good pile of money, I would have given (Columbus Tech) a welding machine they need," he said. "It would have been great to do that."

But he shrugged off the disappointment. He focuses instead on what he learned and the friendships he made.

"This is absolutely the best school you'll ever attend," Lee said. "The instructors will do anything in this world to help you. They will stop. They will help you. They won't leave you until you know what you're supposed to do."

Vinson called Lee an inspiration.

"You're never too old to learn," said Vinson, who teaches part time at Columbus Tech. His full-time job is coordinator of Work-Based Learning for the Muscogee County School District. He was the district's 2006 Teacher of the Year when he was a metals technology instructor at Jordan High School.

Vinson pointed to Lee discussing his project with another student and said, "For him to come in here and do what he's doing right now, spending time with that guy, talking to him, appreciating him, that's what I like."

Columbus Tech student Damon Brown, 19, marveled at Lee's dexterity despite his age.

"It's pretty impressive," said Brown, from Smiths Station, Ala. "I mean, if he feels like he can do it, why not let him?"

Lee's wife, Joyce, thinks the same way. She figures if two open-heart surgeries haven't slowed him, she won't fret about the welding.

"The radiation from all that work on X-ray machines, that's what scares me," Joyce said. "But welding? No more than chopping down a tree. In fact, my concern is his climbing trees to hunt."

Lee also likes to garden. He grows and cans vegetables.

He fixes small engines. He does woodwork and yard work.

And his next challenge?

"I'd like to learn air conditioning," he said. "That's the one thing I haven't learned. I can do everything in the house except air conditioning."

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